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Forest Thinning

Chris Sanchez, of the Flagstaff Fire Department, watches as a freshly cut ponderosa pine falls to the ground during a forest thinning project near Equestrian Estates in August. The thinning operation was part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, which could save Flagstaff more than a billion dollars in the long run, according to a new study. (Taylor Mahoney/Arizona Daily Sun file photo)

Two studies published last month reaffirm the benefit of local forest treatment projects from both an economic perspective and an ecological one.

The study calculated the potential wildfire and flood-related costs that will be avoided with the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project. The other study quantified the watershed benefits of forest thinning similar to that proposed by the Four Forest Restoration Initiative.

The FWPP economic study estimated that the wildfire and post-fire flooding-related costs Flagstaff will avoid could total between $573 million and $1.2 billion.

More than 70 percent of Flagstaff voters approved FWPP in 2012. 

The study, which is likely one of the first to anticipate wildfire-related costs from flooding, helps put the FWPP's initial price tag into context, said Paul Summerfelt, the city of Flagstaff’s wildland fire management officer.

“We're using it to reassure voters that $10 million was wise investment,” he said. “We pay a little now to prevent, or a whole lot more later just to try to fix.”

The analysis, performed by Northern Arizona University’s Arizona Rural Policy Institute, accounted for everything from the projected costs of fighting a severe wildfire in Flagstaff’s watersheds to the revenues businesses could lose to post-wildfire flooding. That number, for example, came to $15 million over five years.

The dollar amount of potential damage to Mexican spotted owl habitat, the city’s water supplies and communication towers were other components of the study.

The biggest projected cost was property value decline. That could reach between $256 million and $523 million, the study said. And even that estimate was low, said Jeff Peterson, a research associate with the Rural Policy Institute. That’s because it didn’t fully consider the high premium attached to the area’s mountain homes and the fact that post-fire flooding near Flagstaff would impact not only residential properties but also high-value commercial, educational and medical facilities downtown, he said.

Damage to utilities from fire and flooding, health-related impacts, air quality issues and long term effects on recreation and tourism were just a few of the other components the study didn’t measure.

“That's one of those monsters,” Peterson said of the potential tourism impacts. “If you chased that down it would be huge.”

Sales tax revenue collections from the town of Sedona give some idea of what impacts a fire can have on tourism business. Over the summer, the town was down about $3.5 million in sales tax dollars due to the Slide Fire, said Jennifer Wesselhoff, CEO of the Sedona Chamber of Commerce. The town has a 3 percent sales tax, so that equates to a decrease of about $100 million in direct spending in town, she said.

Getting an estimation of post-wildfire flooding impacts was an especially valuable part of the study, Summerfelt said, because those tend to be the “hidden part of fire.”

“The cost of suppression is a minor component of the impact to the community,” he said. “All the other things that happen, that the community has to live with for years, have a serious economic price tag.”

A way to stretch every drop

Researchers at Northern Arizona University also contributed to a study put out by the Nature Conservancy that looked at potential gains in runoff from forest thinning similar to that planned for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. The U.S. Forest Service-led 4FRI project will use thinning and prescribed fire to restore 2.4 million acres of ponderosa pine forests in northern Arizona.

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The Nature Conservancy study was based on modeling that showed forest thinning across the Salt and Verde watersheds would produce cumulative increases in runoff ranging from 20 to 26 percent over a span of 15 years.

The Nature Conservancy pointed out that additional water soaking into the soil and feeding the watershed could help offset the 20 percent decline in snowpack the West has already experienced due to climate change.

“If you think about climate trends where things are getting warmer and drier, we can’t control the temperature but we can thin the forest to reduce competition for water,” said Rob Marshall, director of the Conservancy’s Center for Science and Public Policy.

Downstream, the runoff gains modeled in the study could yield up to a 9 percent increase in what is delivered annually to municipalities from the Salt and Verde rivers, Marshall said.

The study found that increased gains in runoff would even occur over stretches of dry years thanks to natural climate variability that is expected to persist, even with climate change, Marshall said.  

Even the droughts that are expected to become more frequent in the West will likely be punctuated by years of greater precipitation, he said.  

Another key takeaway was the importance of ponderosa pine forests in the total runoff picture. Those forests cover only about 20 percent of the Salt and Verde watersheds but they produce 50 percent of the runoff because those areas get the majority of precipitation. Whether that water melts and seeps into the ground or gets caught in tree branches then evaporates makes a disproportional impact on the total runoff into the watershed.

“It shows you how important that resource is,” Marshall said.

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Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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